Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Bleach [Sub Pop, 1989] B+
  • Nevermind [DGC, 1991] A
  • Hormoaning [DGC, 1992] A-
  • Incesticide [DGC, 1992] A-
  • In Utero [DGC, 1993] A
  • MTV Unplugged in New York [DGC, 1994] A
  • From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah [Geffen, 1996] A
  • Sliver: The Best of the Box [Geffen, 2005] A
  • Live at Reading [DGC, 2009] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Bleach [Sub Pop, 1989]
I never reviewed this historic debut, one of only three studio albums Kurt Cobain got to record, because it was released in late 1989 and Nevermind only became a thing in late 1991, when my '80s Consumer Guide book was already in print. I did praise it cautiously when I reviewed Charles Cross's 2001 Cobain biography, only to immediately credit Nevermind's "head-bustingly hyperactive drummer Dave Grohl" with rendering Nirvana "a great band." But my belated discovery of Sliver having sent me back, I find that not only do I admire Grohl less, as who the foo doesn't, but blame producer Jack Endino for how dry Bleach's songs sound--way too dry for grunge, a way of music that benefits from extra sputum. Sure it's still a major album: Cobain is a lost treasure. But I prefer Sliver. By a lot. B+

Nevermind [DGC, 1991]
After years of hair-flailing sludge that achieved occasional songform on singles no normal person ever heard, Seattle finally produces some proper postpunk, aptly described by resident genius Kurt Cobain: "Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bad solo." This is hard rock as the term was understood before metal moved in--the kind of loud, slovenly, tuneful music you think no one will ever work a change on again until the next time it happens, whereupon you wonder why there isn't loads more. It seems so simple. A

Hormoaning [DGC, 1992]
Four 1990 Peel-session covers plus two sides of a theoretical single, none duplicated on Bleach, which it smokes (without David Grohl they're sludge monkeys), or Nevermind, which it can hang with (Kurt Cobain yowls like John Hancock crosses his k's). They're obviously a band to hear live (with a multiplatinum sound system, please). Especially since the ticket won't cost much more than this yen-pegged EP. Aren't you glad Mitsubishi owns MCA, so you can home-tape it legally? A-

Incesticide [DGC, 1992]
A lot of these rags and bones and demos and B-sides (including four Hormoaning collectibles) are so on that I figured maybe I'd underrated Bleach until I played it again. But though memorable albums have been recorded for $600, they haven't usually been memorable rock albums--electric music doesn't travel without quality controls. In any case, the trademark interactions are more emphatic on the tracks Bleach's Jack Endino didn't record, which generally means the recent ones. Not a great song band yet. Just a great, um, alternative band, which is rare enough. A-

In Utero [DGC, 1993]
"How 'bout some Nirvana?" you'll say. "Oh yeah, great band," the reply will go. "Really had their own sound. What do you wanna play?" "It don't matter that much, any of the first three." "You mean Bleach?" "Nah, the Geffen albums--not that outtakes thing, but Nevermind or Bluebaby or . . . what did they call the Steve Albini one?" "You mean the really hard one. In Utero. The guitar one." "What do you mean guitar? It had songs on it." "Well, so did the outtakes thing." "The Albini one had better songs, actually. And it was real cadmium besides. Toxic." "You have to play it loud, though. And aren't you supposed to crank the treble too? I liked Nevermind better." "I liked Bluebaby a little better too. But that was a good album. Go ahead. Once Madonna conks out, she sleeps through the night. She's a good baby that way--nothing wakes her up. Come on, let me relive my youth." "I hope you don't regret it in the morning." "These days, I never regret anything in the morning. I'm too fucking tired to bother. Let her rip." A

MTV Unplugged in New York [DGC, 1994]
Not only did Kurt Cobain transcend alt-rock by rocking so hard, he transcended alt-rock by feeling so deep. On this accidental testament, intended merely to altify the MTV mindset by showcasing the Meat Puppets and covering the Vaselines, Cobain outsensitives Lou Barlow and Eddie Vedder in passing. His secret is sincerity, boring though that may be--he cares less than Barlow without boasting a bit about it, tries harder than Vedder without busting a gut about it. The vocal performance he evokes is John Lennon's on Plastic Ono Band. And he did it in one take. A

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah [Geffen, 1996]
One new song and 15 old ones--intense renderings of familiar arrangements recycled for the buying season. Maybe it wouldn't carry the same weight if Kurt Cobain were alive. But it wouldn't carry the same weight if everybody had a good job or plague wiped out half the planet, either. Cobain is dead, alienated labor is everywhere, plague is something we worry about, and this is a great record for a world where those three truths are on the table. Less precise and contained than Nevermind or In Utero, it serves an unduplicated function for a band that changed the pop world with four dozen songs. I play Unplugged to refresh my memory of a sojourner's spirituality. I'll play this one when I want to remember a band's guts, fury, and rock and roll music. A

Sliver: The Best of the Box [Geffen, 2005]
In her 2011 review "Nevermind Already: Nirvana's 20th Anniversary Boxset," Jessica Hopper was inspired by a less redundant maxi-retrospective of Jimi Hendrix's Winterland shows to say it all in eight words: "Cobain is not our Jimi--he's our Jim"--that is, "a died-young druggie poet-totem" in the tradition of J. Morrison himself. It was because I'd whiffed this truth myself that I skipped 2004's three-CD rarities box With the Lights Out, although when I wrote my rave for 2009's Live at Reading, their very first true concert album, I allowed as how the "detritus-happy" box was "not only fascinating but pleasurable." Which means I had no excuse for skipping this single-CD distillation of that box when it came out in 2005. But it was only after a 2021 pull from my Nirvana section that I connected with it--immediately, after first noting that the opening "Spank Thru" was so pained and ungainly it was irresistible and then realizing that I was hearing a very young Kurt and loving it. Yes there are variations on songs you know by heart: a winningly unfinished "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Come as You Are" enlarged by a rare Cobain solo, two "Rape Me"s and a "Heart Shaped Box." But it's the more obscure material that fascinates me: the introspective "Opinion," the neat "Clean Up Before She Comes," the roiling "Oh the Guilt," the domestic abuse howl "Ain't It a Shame." As an old person I wish "Old Age" was sharper, and the music does get better when Dave Grohl joins midway through. But it doesn't really have that far to go. A

Live at Reading [DGC, 2009]
Nirvana's outtakes retain more jam than most, in part because they've been doled out so sparingly. Even the detritus-happy three-CD/one-DVD With the Lights Out box is not only fascinating but pleasurable. A side effect of this restraint is that, except for the subdued and hence one-of-a-kind MTV Unplugged, this is the band's very first concert album--one show beginning to end rather than the hither-and-yon performances unified into From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah in 1996. Half these 24 songs aren't on that record anyway, but even if most of them were, the sustained mood and energy flow would be something new and precious. The arrangements offer few surprises, though check the guitar intro to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; the Mudhoney cover and unfinalized "D-7" at the end are there to tamp the crowd down a little. So what? This one proceeds directly to the canon. A

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